Earlier this month soccer great Lionel Messi of Argentina and FC Barcelona broke German Gerd Müller’s mark of 85 goals scored in a calendar year, a feat Müller accomplished in 1972.
Messi scored his 85th and 86th goal of 2012 in a December 9 match against Real Betis. He has since added four goals to his total, establishing a mark that will be as hard to surpass as Müller’s was.
(The Zambian Football Association has presented evidence that Godfrey Chitalu, who played for Kabwe Warriors F.C., scored 107 goals in 1972, but his feat was not globally recognized. For what it’s worth, FIFA does not keep official counts of most goals in a calendar year.)
Meanwhile in American football, Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson are threatening to break, respectively, Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record (2,105 yards) and Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving yards record (1,848 yards). Dickerson’s record has stood since 1984; Rice set his record in 1995.
Some records in sports seem unbreakable, either because they have stood for so long (such as Hack Wilson’s single-season RBI record of 191, which was set in 1930), are holdovers from a previous era in which a sport was drastically different than it is today (such as Cy Young’s 511 wins), or are so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe they were set in the first place (such as Wilt’s 100 points in a single game).
But, as Leo has shown and as All Day and Megatron are showing, even records that appear to be untouchable may eventually be touched.
And few things are as exciting for a sports fan as watching an age-old record go down (even if the new record holder is later connected to performance-enhancing drugs).
Adults today have seen plenty of big records go down.
In 1995, we saw Cal Ripken, Jr. surpass Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record; a few years later Mark McGwire bested Roger Maris’ longstanding single-season home run record, and Barry Bonds passed Hank Aaron’s career home run total a few years after that (yeah, I know); Emmitt Smith became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher in 2002, surpassing Walter Payton, who set the record in 1984; and last year Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old NFL single-season passing record.
Here are a few more major records that could be broken in our lifetimes:
NBA all-time scoring record
Current record holder: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 38,387 points
Potential record breaker: Kobe Bryant LeBron James
While Leo was busy overtaking Gerd Müller, Kobe Bryant was becoming only the fifth player in NBA history to score more than 30,000 career points. Kobe, who is 34 years old, now has 30,252 points—8,135 points short of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career mark of 38,387.
In seasons not shortened by a lockout and in which Kobe has been healthy, he’s been a lock to score more than 2,000 points. This year he’s on pace to score between 2,300 and 2,400. Barring injury, he’ll finish this season with around 31,800 points and will need around 6,600 more to pass Kareem.
Playing at his current level, Kobe could do that in three seasons. Even if he drops off a bit (and he probably will), he’ll still only need four (as long as he stays healthy).
Kobe will be 38 years old in four years. Considering recent advances in medicine, strength and conditioning, and diet, there’s no reason a player with Kobe Bryant’s talent and work ethic can’t be an All-Star-caliber player at 38.
(And even if injuries set him back, if Kobe decides he’s going to break the record, even if it means playing until he’s 40; then he’ll break the record.)
The all-time scoring record is Kobe’s if he wants it. (And he may not. He might decide that retirement is more attractive. But I don’t see him making this decision without a sixth ring.) But even if he gets the record he might not keep it very long.
LeBron James, who is six years younger than Kobe, will hit 20,000 points later this year. Unlike Kobe, who came off the bench during his first two seasons and didn’t score more than 20 points per game until his fourth, LeBron was a starter on day one and averaged 20.9 points as a rookie and 27.2 as a sophomore. That gave him a big head start. (Kobe also played through two lockout-shortened seasons to LeBron’s one and had another season shortened by legal issues.)
Averaging 2,100 points per year over the next 8 seasons (and, with the exception of the abbreviated 2011 season, LeBron has scored more than 2,100 every year since he was a rookie), LeBron will hit Kareem’s mark when he is 36. We don’t know how long it would take him to beat Kobe’s new record, but it probably wouldn’t take more than one or two seasons.
All this depends on LeBron staying healthy, but LeBron’s durability may be his most underrated asset. He’s never played fewer than 75 games in an 82-game season. Don’t be surprised if LBJ is still an elite player when he’s in his mid-thirties. (And don’t be surprised if, in a few years, we’re crossing out LeBron’s name and replacing it with Kevin Durant’s.)
Most all-time Olympic medals
Current record holder: Michael Phelps, 22 medals
Potential record breaker: Missy Franklin
When it comes to winning Olympic medals, American swimmers who can earn their way onto relay teams have a big advantage.
If an American Olympic swimmer is among the world’s best in, say, the 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly, he or she can count on winning three medals in relays—the 4 x 100 freestyle, 4 x 200 freestyle, and 4 x 100 medley. Because the United States always wins medals in relays.
To get the relay trifecta, a swimmer needs to be one of Team USA’s eight best swimmers in the 100 and 200 free and one of the team’s two best swimmers in the 100 free, backstroke, breaststroke, or butterfly. (Though only four swimmers compete in a relay, it’s not unusual for a team to use as many as eight: four in the prelims and a totally different four in the final. All eight swimmers, whether they competed in the prelims or finals, win a medal.)
These relay medals, coupled with the fact that we’re unlikely ever again to see a gymnast who can be dominant for three or four consecutive Olympic games, are the reason why six of the nine Olympians to win eleven or more medals since 1980 have been American swimmers: Michael Phelps (22), Jenny Thompson (12), Dara Torres (12), Natalie Coughlin (12), Matt Biondi (11), and Ryan Lochte (11).
(The other three were German kayaker Birgit Fischer, who won twelve medals in seven Olympics; Norwegian cross-country skiier Bjørn Dæhlie, who won twelve medals in three Olympics; and Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov, who won twelve medals in two Olympics.)
So if anyone is going to break Michael Phelps’s record of 22 Olympic medals (nine of which came in relays), it will probably be an American who can get a spot on all three relay teams.
Of course, you’ll notice that Phelps has earned 10 more medals than any other Olympian since 1980. There’s a good chance that Ryan Lochte will become history’s second-most decorated Olympic swimmer in 2016 in Rio. But he’ll top out at 14 or 15 medals, still well short of Phelps.
But there is one American swimmer who has a chance to win a couple dozen medals. She only has 5 right now. But she’s only 17.
Missy Franklin won gold medals in the 100 and 200 backstroke, the 4 x 200 freestyle relay, and the 4 x 100 medley relay. She won bronze in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay. Franklin also finished fourth and fifth in the 200 freestyle and 100 freestyle, respectively.
Don’t be surprised if, in 2016 Rio, Franklin cracks the top three in her two freestyle events, winning a total of seven medals. She’ll only be 25 in 2020 and could conceivably win another seven.
Seven medals in both 2016 and 2020 would give her 19 medals total. Four medals—say, three relay and one individual—in 2024 (at age 29) would give Franklin the record. If she can earn her way onto a couple relay teams as a 33-year-old in 2028, Franklin could get away with winning only six medals in 2020 and no individual medal in 2024.
At any rate, there are several ways for Missy Franklin to get to 23. None will be easy. But she’s already the best female swimmer in the world, and she’s only 17.
Most NFL passing touchdowns
Current record holder: Brett Favre, 508 touchdowns
Potential record breaker: Peyton Manning
Not long ago, it appeared as though Peyton Manning would eventually break all of the NFL’s career passing records. Then he had four neck surgeries and missed an entire season.
Those neck procedures certainly had an effect on Peyton’s game, but they haven’t kept him from putting up big numbers. For his career, Manning has thrown about 31 touchdowns per season. This year, with two games remaining, he’s already at his average.
Let’s say Manning throws five more touchdowns this year. That would bring is career total to 435, 83 short of Favre. He would need to throw 28 touchdowns per season for three seasons to break the record.
If Manning can stay healthy and motivated, there’s no way he doesn’t break the record. But there’s no guarantee that he’ll stay healthy and motivated.
Most Major League Baseball Hits
Current record holder: Pete Rose, 4,256 hits
Potential record breaker: Derek Jeter
I don’t care for gambling, but you can count me among those who find it tragic that baseball’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, isn’t in the game’s Hall of Fame. Fifteen years from now this may no longer be the case. Not because Bud Selig’s successor decides to lift Charlie Hustle’s lifetime ban, but because there is a new all-time hits leader.
(I still remember one night in September 1985 when a man from our church busted into our house unannounced. He was in the neighborhood and needed to get to a television set before Pete’s next at bat. Rose had 4,191 hits, tying him with Ty Cobb. If memory serves me well, Rose broke the record the following evening.)
Derek Jeter is sitting on 3,304 hits and is coming off a 216-hit season, the second best of his career. The Captain is still a long way from 4,256, but when you chart Rose and Jeter’s hit totals by age, you will see that they’ve accumulated hits at a nearly identical pace.
Rose and Jeter both became full-time Major League players when they were 22. At 38 (Jeter’s age right now), Rose had 3,372 hits, 68 more than Jeter has right now.
Rose’s number dropped off substantially when he was 42. If Jeter—through advances in strength and conditioning, nutrition, etc.—can get 170–180 hits per season throughout his early 40s, he can break the record when he’s 44.
Jeter only has one year left on his current deal. But if he wants to stick around and pass Pete Rose, I’m sure the Yankees will accommodate him.
Most Grand Slam Singles Titles, Women’s Tennis
Current record holder: Margaret Smith Court, 24
Potential record breaker: Serena Williams
This one’s a stretch.
Serena Williams only has 15 Grand Slam singles titles, 9 short of Margaret Smith Court’s record. And she’s already 31, which is like 60 in women’s tennis years. It’s possible that the younger Williams won’t even pass Chris and Martina (18 titles), let alone Helen Wills Moody (19), Steffi Graf (22), or Court.
Age isn’t the only factor working against Serena. She’s also struggled with injury and inconsistency throughout her career. At one point, from 2003 to 2008, she went five years without winning a slam.
But right now, at 31, Serena is playing the best tennis of her life. She might be playing the best tennis of any woman’s life. (I’d love to see a match between 2012 Serena and 1988 Graf for the title of greatest of all time.)
At the London Olympics Serena made Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, the world’s top two players according to the rankings, look like junior varsity high school players. Her gold medal in London was sandwiched between impressive Grand Slam wins and Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
To break Court’s record, Serena will have to play near her current level for two more years, winning three slams each in 2013 and 2014. This would put her at 21. One slam per year over the next four years would put her past Court’s 24.
Can Serena still win a Grand Slam at 36? I wouldn’t put it past her. After what I saw from Serena this summer, I wouldn’t be shocked to see her win two slams at 35 or even to win one at 38.